Review: Moonlighter does not shine quite as bright as it should
by on February 16, 2019

Moonlighter, from 11 Bit Studios, does well to try and combine some rogue-like style concepts with the dungeon crawling of the original Legend of Zelda. For the most part, it’s actually quite nice. However, a few key areas keep this game from being quite as amazing as it could be.

I do want to start out by saying that this game looks and sounds amazing. Aesthetically, top to bottom, it is a pixel lover’s dream. Fluid, interesting animations accompany backgrounds of a tiny village, a lush forest dungeon, and so many more. It is, simply put, a visual treat. One look at the trailer might help to identify just what it is about this game that is appealing right off the bat. The game has an amazing color palette everywhere you are, and everything pops with style and appeal. The accompanying soundtracks help fit the mood for each particular area you’re in, giving this game a real sense of tone that you don’t see as often in other games.

Full disclosure
11 Bit Studios, the studio behind Moonlighter, graciously provided us with a review copy of the game for Switch.

The gameplay, however, is not as crisp as the visuals. The biggest issue is, sadly, the combat. There are a number of issues to take into account here, but to start we’ll talk about weapons. I always love a good choice in weaponry in video games. Being tied to the same weapons gets old fast. Moonlighter offers up a buffet of weapons from the default sword and shield to different types of bows and arrows, punching weapons, and many various swords. As a fan of bruisin’ and brawlin’, I decided to main a pair of vicious boxing gloves with an elemental bow/arrow combo as my backup. I spent a lot of time diving into dungeons (more on that structure in a bit) so I could upgrade and enhance my weapons to my desire. There was some marked improvement every time that I did, and it felt like truly getting over a hill. However, that only got me so far before I just could not beat the second primary dungeon out of the four in the game. The next tier upgrades were requiring materials from the next dungeon, and those materials were prohibitively expensive. All the potions weren’t helping me attack the giant boss at the end and put up with its army of turret-plants. Frustrated, I started to try other weapons before coming back to the old sword and board.

Sometimes environments and enemies blended in more than you would like.

I hadn’t even powered it up to the forest (first) dungeon’s “level,” and the boss went down without a hitch. Curious if that combo was just more “my speed” than I thought, I started playing through some older dungeons to farm for materials. I found that everything crumpled against my sword and shield, and nothing could touch me.

The long and short of it is that the weapon variety doesn’t matter. Everything in this game will jump at you or shoot at you with bullets, and the shield is the only clean way to defend yourself. Otherwise, you can try to roll around enemies and beat them up, but then another enemy can get to you, or your invincibility frames just weren’t quite right. Never mind the fact that the forest dungeon was loaded with poisonous floors that stood between you and enemies, forcing you to eat poison damage just to reach them. Trying to pick off at a range with the bow sounded like a great idea on paper, but it actually has a built-in mechanic to veer wildly off to one side if you try a power shot, keeping you from any decent long-range solutions.

Even being equipped with the greatest sword and shield, however, did not fix that many problems; enemies simply do not react to you hitting them. The hits don’t break them out of a firing pattern or push them back like the combat in A Link to the Past. For most enemies, that’s tolerable enough to work with. It’s when the slimes that can go through the attacks and creep into you and make you vulnerable to everything else in the room, then it gets exhausting.

Humble beginnings

But dungeon crawling is only half (well, three quarters) of the gameplay. The other main thing is your day job running ye olde family shop. I’ve been a huge fan of these kinds of games for a while, going all the way back to Recettear back in 2010. So, Moonlighter certainly isn’t unique to this genre mashup, but there were some interesting systems in the shop that I did enjoy. There was a sort of “stock market” system that penalized you for dumping too many of the same thing into the market while rewarding you greatly for items you haven’t sold for a while. The value of an item is also entirely mysterious until you start selling them. A basic catalog will help you keep track of how popular an item is and how customers have reacted to various prices, but it doesn’t seem to be detailed enough to make decisions on. Selling things for under market value hurts you as a business owner, but there’s never a clear gauge as to what is important or not and how much stuff in a new dungeon should be worth compared to the previous. As money is the only real key measure for progress in that game, allowing you to unlock more and more features, it does feel that more detail should be provided to the player. Instead, it feels like it’s our responsibility to remember every detail about similar-looking important items with only one or two pieces of information to go on.

Exploring the dungeons like we used to.

Beyond the immediate frustration of “dang, I could have made more money there!” there is a great deal of satisfaction of watching your shoppers light up when they find just the right price for your items. Manually having to check them out, restock on the fly, and deal with thieves trying to make off with your goods helps to keep things from being as boring as real-world retail.

With new upgrades and items, you can dive back into one of the four dungeons (unlocked as you progress) before finding the vague mystery of these repeatable, shifting caverns. Mileage may very, but there was any real lack of urgency besides just wanting to be filthy rich. Game characters would give typically ominous, nonsense warnings about digging deeper, but the why was never really a motivation. Is something evil here? Will this bring about a cataclysm? Or do old dudes just not want me to become an item shop empire for my hard work? Nothing happens in the town, and all you’re doing is unlocking new biomes with only the goal of finding better stuff to sell.

You get used to what all this means fast, but the sorting will drag on for a while.

A key mechanic in the game also requires you to play management with your entirely-too-limited inventory space. Do you really need those slime pieces more than a stack of glowing crystals? If not, feed your leftover items to a vortex in your bag for a fraction of gold that you could have made selling it in the store. Just remember to take inventory of everything you’re saving in boxes back home! Otherwise, you might keep a bunch of stuff you don’t need. While a handy “wishlist” feature lets you make sure you’re keeping items you need for a specific weapon and armor upgrades, it is overall a cumbersome and irritating system to deal with. A three-story dungeon could have you playing this game of making space by the time you’ve reached the second floor. That means the rest of the dungeon is fighting with your bag space every single room to optimize your haul. Some items also have “curses” that make them unknown or make them only able to be placed in certain areas of the bag. These curses also prevent stacking like items, so are often going to be the first things you would get rid of to make room. At the end of the round, I still found each journey back into the dungeons frustrating as I tried to manage all of these pieces. As somebody who legitimately relished in the Tetris-style organization and inventory maintenance in Resident Evil 4, this game’s systems must truly be awful to be this annoying.

The boss designs are brilliant to look at, and really represent the dungeon’s designs.

Moonlighter also struggles to run as smoothly as you’d like. I would frequently run into issues of framerate locking in hairy fights, enemy animations not matching their attacks, causing confusion as to how to approach them. I even experienced random bugs like swimming through the ground. But more than anything, I experienced a number of “This game has stopped working” crashes that dumped me to the Switch home screen, losing any dungeon progress I made. Most of the time, these happened while I tried to delve into the item-sorting mechanics in your bag or a treasure chest. It’s unknown if these are specific issues seen to the Switch version or if you can find them in other versions as well.

There’s a lot to compare this game too, and it doesn’t measure terribly favorable against anything. Dead Cells has immaculate gameplay and similarly beautiful art. The Binding of Isaac is less about keeping any hint of progress, but as that game has evolved the gameplay has become much more solid. You can also play Flinthook on your Switch, which features similarly brilliant art and treasure-hunting themes but supplies better mechanics for progression and stellar gameplay. Owners of the Nintendo Online service can even find the original NES The Legend of Zelda for your grid-based dungeon crawling fix.

Make potions to help guide you through the dungeons, or restore health.

I don’t really know that I can recommend this game to most people — unless you solely play rogue-adjacent dungeon crawlers on your Switch and have beaten all the rest. It’s not that this game is even “bad” honestly. It just comes short in every category compared to its peers and thus makes it a hard sell for most people.

Score Similarity to other Zeldas
6/10 The Legend of Zelda – ▲▲▲▲▲
A Link to the Past – ▲▲△△△
Link’s Awakening – ▲▲▲△△
Randy Marr